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"The Faith We Choose" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on September 8, 2019 by Kathy Miller

The Faith We Choose

 

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.         Amen.

 

Scripture (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Luke 14:27-33)

Our first scripture passage this morning comes from the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy and picks up in the middle of a sermon that Moses is preaching to the Israelites just before they are to enter the promised land. Listen now for God’s word to us in this time and place:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

 

And from the gospel according to Luke, chapter 14, verses 27 through 33:

Jesus said to them, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him,saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

The Faith We Choose

As it turns out, I would not have made a very good Jesus. This, I am sure, is a surprise to no one who knows me, many of whom could undoubtedly give you a host of reasons why this is true. But you should listen to none of them because the fact of the matter is, I wouldn’t have made a good Jesus because I am too nice.

Allow me to explain.

Pastor Jenny and I have been thinking a lot this summer about Confirmation—what the program is, what it should look like, etc. And one of the challenging questions about planning a confirmation program is always, what do you do with youth who don’t complete the requirements. Is there a cut-off, a point at which you say to a youth and their family, “I’m sorry, but you have not attended enough classes, done enough service projects, been in worship frequently enough, for us to feel like you are capable of making an informed decision about your faith. You can try again next time we offer the program.”? It’s a hard question. On the one hand, we don’t ask adults to go through this much work to join the church, and we want young people in our church, so lowering the bar makes sense—the more the merrier. On the other hand, we offer Confirmation for a reason, we believe there is value in thinking carefully about what faith looks like and what church membership means, so are we undercutting our own values if we relax the standards?

When asked in the light of this morning’s gospel reading from Luke, the answer is clearly that you take a hard line. Our reading begins in the middle of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Just before the passage we read this morning, Jesus had told a parable of radical inclusivity—a vision of the kingdom of God as a banquet to which all are invited. It is an attractive portrait and it seems to garner good results since a few verses later we are told that large crowds are now traveling with him. And this is where Jesus does something that would surely make every church growth consultant or publicist cringe: he turns on the crowd and says, “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple … none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

This is not the first time in Luke’s gospel that Jesus draws a hard line in the sand. Earlier a potential disciple agrees to follow Jesus but first needs to attend to the burial of his father, another agrees to follow but wants to first say goodbye to their family. To each, Jesus gives a curt but negative reply: let the dead bury the dead, and no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Later, when a rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responds that he must sell all of his possessions and follow him. And when the man walks away, Jesus lets him go. He doesn’t run after him and say, “hey wait, just kidding, if that’s too much, how about half?” Jesus doesn’t compromise, he doesn’t reconsider or accommodate for extenuating circumstances, he just lays out what is required and allows people to take it or leave it.

As I said, I would not have made a good Jesus. Despite having gotten meaner as I’ve aged, I’m still too much of a people pleaser—still too concerned about meeting people where they are, about accommodating life circumstances, and recognizing the difficulty of the choices we have to make—with our time, our money, our energy. I’m terrible at holding the line. And, it must be said, this morning’s passage is but one portrait of Jesus; to read it in isolation would be to present a false image of who Jesus was—there are plenty of stories in which it is Jesus’ compassion and empathy that take center stage.

And yet.

There’s no denying that Jesus is crystal clear about the cost of discipleship—following Jesus requires nothing less than everything. It’s maybe not the conventional strategy for church growth—“welcome to Covenant, we’re glad to have you, please give us all of your worldly possessions in addition to all of your time and energy, talents and gifts. Oh, you’d be happy to but first you need to make sure your babysitter can watch your kids? Never mind. You clearly are not ready for membership.”

It’s such a stark line that Jesus draws that it’s hard to wrap our minds around—we want to dismiss it out of hand, skip over it and land back in the parables of inclusions and care. We want to attribute it to hyperbole or for the select few. But there’s nothing in the text that indicates this is the case. Jesus is speaking to large crowds; he’s speaking to us.

So how are we to make sense of this all or nothing ultimatum? There are, I think, two helpful perspectives. The first comes from the gospel of Luke itself. Luke’s gospel is a story of Jesus on the way—it is, in some ways, a travelogue of sorts. Luke tells the stories of Jesus’ healings, teachings, and encounters as Jesus is ever-so-slowly making his way to Jerusalem and the cross. For Luke, following Jesus, means walking with Jesus, following him to the cross, to a place where we must be willing to sacrifice it all. For Luke, faith is a journey that we must get up and embark upon every single day. It is less what we profess to believe and more what we do—the choices we make. It’s the big choices like confirmation and baptism, but it’s also, and perhaps primarily, the small everyday choices—the choices about how we spend our time and our money, how we treat the people in our lives and the strangers we encounter.

The challenge with this view of faith, of course, is that it is unending—it is a choice we must make again and again. And unless we’re literally giving away everything we own and joining a monastery, we are going to have to fight against our culture and our natural inclinations in order to prioritize Christ and Christ’s work in the world. The good news, however, is that this means have unending opportunities to choose again. So, when we fail—when we save the money out of anxiety rather than giving it away, when we cut someone off in traffic, when we snipe at our loved one or turn away from the stranger—we have the opportunity to try again, to make a different choice the next time.

The other perspective that helps us understand Jesus’ all or nothing invitation comes from the Deuteronomy passage we read earlier. In this reading, Moses is preaching to the gathered Jewish community as they are about to enter the promised land. They have escaped from slavery in Egypt and have been wandering in the desert for years and now, finally, they find themselves at the threshold, the border, about to enter the land they have been promised. And Moses says to them, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of God, love God and walk in God’s ways than you shall live and become numerous and God will bless you. But if you do not, if you turn to other gods, if you give priority to other things, than you shall not live long in the land. I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.”

What Moses reminds the Israelites, and us, is that faith isn’t just about getting us through the hard times—the periods in our lives when it feels like we’re lost and wandering in the desert. Each day we have choices to make: choices on who and how we love, choices on how we spend our time, our money, our energy. We have big choices and so many little choices; and some of the choices we make are going to lead to life—they’re going to leave us feeling energized and excited, full of life. And some of the choices we’re going to make are going to lead to death—they’re going to leave us feeling depleted, dejected, despairing.

Living a life of faith, being willing to give everything to follow Jesus, means continually choosing life—making choices that allow us to be our best selves, choices that allow us to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

Faith is a choice we make a thousand times every day. It’s the choice to have hope when the world feels like it’s ending; it’s the choice to be generous when it would make far more sense to protect ourselves; it’s the choice to see coincidences and serendipities as one of the ways in which God acts in the world; it’s the choice to give our money away rather than hold on to it or save it for a rainy day. It’s the choice to trust that there is enough, that there will always be enough.

Faith is a choice we make over and over and over again. And the more we practice saying yes to faith, the more opportunities we will see to choose it again and again. And when we do, the biblical promise is that what we’ve chosen, no matter what it requires of us or how the world portrays it, is life. It is a life that is richer than what we could create for ourselves. It is a life deeper and broader than what the commercials and advertisements promise if only we would choose consumerism or our own needs first.

Choosing faith is easy some moments and incredibly hard in others. But the first step is always to be aware that we are choosing. That it is a choice. That when we choose to cut someone off in traffic, withhold affection, ignore our mistakes, see the worst in someone rather than the best, we are choosing not to have faith.

It takes practice. Being able to see the choices that lie before us—the ones we make every day without even thinking about them. And then it takes practice to choose life and faith, hope and love, generosity and courage because nine times out of ten, our culture tells us to choose the opposite. But faith is the work of a lifetime. And God has not left us alone to find our way through life as though it were a maze in which we must make every turn correctly. God is with us, offering us each and every day hundreds of choices, big and small, and urging us to choose the ones that lead to life as God meant for it to be: a life rooted in the promises of God, a life that proclaims that love is stronger than hate, that goodness matters more than being right, that it is in relationship and community that we find our way forward. Faith is a choice. And the work of being a Christian is choosing it over and over and over again, each and every day.

Thanks be to God.

 
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